Paganism, Gothic Aesthetic, and the Sensibility of Darkness: An Observation

‘Tis the season, so let’s talk about it: it’s a thing, among us Pagans.

Cemeteries, bones, skulls, ravens. Vampires and absinthe and Ye Olde Occulte Symboles.

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Dark. Spooky. Sexy.

It scares some people. Particularly non-Pagan, white-light-obsessed Christians and New Age folks.

At this time of year, the Pagan community leaps with particular gusto into the seasonal enthusiasm for skulls and graves and blood. Much of this is because our paths, rather than phobically avoiding the subject of death, actually embrace it as a necessary and inevitable part of the human story. We understand that life is not just light, but is also darkness. That the human experience is not only of joy and discovery and striving, but of horror and suffering.

And sex. In gothic aesthetic, the sex and death frequently go together. Thus the gothic obsession with vampires.

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Some of it is our joy in natural objects. Bones and antlers and skulls are cool. For others, it is about the presumed gloomy/spooky/gothic aesthetic of the gods they revere.

Some of it is recognition that we die, and all who have gone before us did, too: it is a time to reflect on and honor our ancestors.

Sometimes I think people get a bit carried away by it. That said, I’ll take it over pastels and polo shirts any day of the week.

But more than anything, I suspect that what this enthusiasm is really about is a hunger for the intensity of experience. A willingness to confront even pain, even sorrow, even death in order truly to feel in a world that commodifies experience and meets suffering with contempt or saccharine platitudes. To take joy in eerie moods and night chills.

Many of our rituals—at any time of year—are about exactly that: to feel intensely and with authenticity.

So when you see goths—real goths, not just people in “sexy witch” outfits they put together at the Halloween store—see them for more than a morbid subculture.

Their way may not be my way, entirely, but they’re honest about who they are and what they want. They have chosen not to pretend. They have chosen to wear their feelings rather than hide them.

That takes courage. So give them some credit.

And who knows? They might be Pagans, too.

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Presenting Ourselves to the World

It is not a surprise that as it was being founded, Neopaganism looked to an imagined pastoral and pre-industrial way of life as an inspiration.

Modern Paganism’s inaugural moment in the United States, about 50 years ago in the late 1960s into the mid-1970s, occurred at the same time that the Romantic idealizations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dungeons and Dragons and Renaissance Faires and the newly created fantasy genre and the rosy aspirations of the “back to the land” movement were taking over the aesthetic and emotional landscape of young people: particularly smart, geeky college students of the exact demographic which eventually became the Neopagan base.

After all, so much of the ecological crisis we face can be put down to the damage caused by industry. Why not harken back to a time before it existed?

Especially when you can throw in fairies and elves?

Thus, the standard “Pagan look”—at least in the U.S., but I think it has become international—became that of an idealized Jolly Olde Englande of flowing medieval velvets and loose pants, kilts and leather corsets and peasant shirts and various equipment slung about the waist.

What we think of as “Pagan attire” hasn’t changed all that much since then, though the palette has added quite a bit of piercing and tattoos and wildly colored hair and Gothy and BDSMy and even Steampunky qualities to the original Renfaire aesthetic.

These clothes—many of them, anyway—feel delicious to wear and touch, make you feel pretty and…noble, somehow. Regal.

I mean…look at these beautiful people:

 

Personally, I love this stuff. I’m a costuming and living history geek, so I will joyfully dive into the fun of Pagan dress-up when a suitable opportunity presents itself. A festival, say, or a convention, or a ritual.

That said, I think that while there are times for us to express ourselves through our clothing and adornment, there are also times for us to strategically present ourselves to the surrounding culture in a manner which will be more apt to achieve our goals.

This raises the much-maligned (in Pagan circles) spectre of respectability politics: a concept which has been criticized as being a surrender of who we are and what we stand for. Critics argue that to present as anything other than exactly who we are, in all our colorful creativity and diversity, all the time, no matter the context, is a betrayal of that diversity.

For some, this may be true. I’m not going to tell you otherwise, if you feel very strongly about looking exactly as you choose to look, all the time. Go ahead, with my full support.

But I think we should acknowledge the fact that each of us isn’t a single person who interacts with everyone in the same way. We don’t interact with our lovers as we do with our mothers or our employers. We show different facets of ourselves depending on context. And we have the power to do that in relation to the powerful and influential, too.

More broadly, let us acknowledge that we cannot disentangle ourselves from the systems that run our culture. Much as we might wish to, we are a part of the societies and economies we occupy (or, as some might say, which occupy us).

And that gives us a responsibility to try to influence them.

So let me suggest some thoughts about ways that—for those of us willing to do so—toning down our difference and meeting the surrounding culture where it lives may help us.

The first is that Pagans desperately need some credibility. Whenever the mainstream press wants to do a story on us—which thus far is pretty much always at Halloween—the same faces are generally featured and the stories tend to be laughing up their sleeves at us.

That frames how most people see us. When I tell people in my professional circles that I’m a Pagan—pretty rare, given how it lands—the response is often amusement, not curiosity. Much less respect.

I would like Pagans to be a part of conversations about how we relate to our world and one another. I would like for our visions, however radical, at least to be in the mix of ideas discussed, instead of living in our little blogosphere bubble.

We cannot transform a society we do not engage. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can.

It’s unfortunate, and speaks to the dreary conformity of our culture, but the price of being taken seriously is that in those contexts, we have to not look like Legolas or Gandalf. We have to look like serious-minded people whose opinions are thoughtful and whose values and practices carry weight.

Now, I’m the first one to grant that this is easy for me to say, as a cis white male. I can shave and get a business haircut and take out my earring and put on a suit and fit right in at a legislator’s office. And I do, when I go lobbying (actually, I leave the earring in, but that’s pretty ho-hum these days).

I think of it as slipping on a disguise and infiltrating the houses of power. I don’t forget who I am. I use my ability to “pass” to get before people who can make important decisions impacting the Earth and our communities.

To my knowledge, I’ve never seen another Pagan at the State Capitol. I wish more of us were there, speaking up for our values.

I don’t lead with my religious identity when I engage decision makers, because I know it will undermine my credibility. Most religious representatives don’t have to do that, and that bothers me. Christians and Jews and even Muslims and Hindus can march right in, announce themselves and their communities, and expect a respectful reception from most listeners.

After 50 years of modern Paganism, I think we should be able to command some respect, too.

It’s a problem to me that we don’t. Because what we have to say as a community about values, about policies, and about the Sacred Earth is critically important at this time.

So I’m going to make a change. When I engage community and political leadership, I’m going to wear my Atheopagan lapel pin. If I’m asked about it, I will briefly describe what it means. If that means that my credibility drops, well, so be it. Maybe people like me have to be the thin edge of the wedge.

We have wise people in this community: people of heart and intellect and compassion and courage. Their voices should be heard by those who make decisions on behalf of all of us.

And we have to start somewhere.

 

Naturalism, Monism, and the Philosophy of Atheopaganism

Atheopaganism is a naturalistic religion: that is, we believe that all that exists is a part of the natural, material Universe, and is subject to its laws. We revere this material Universe—the Cosmos—as Sacred and magnificent.

As naturalistic Pagans, we do not subscribe to the idea that there is an Otherworld within which reside magical and/or disembodied entities such as gods, spirits, ghosts or fairies. We expect scientifically credible evidence in order to support a proposed idea with our belief, and there simply is none for this Otherworld and its supposed residents.

A part of this naturalistic approach is monism: the idea that the body and the consciousness are not distinct, that there is no “ghost in the machine”. Our selves, our personalities arise from the physicality of our bodies (most particularly, our brains). There is no “soul” that exists separately from the body; when the body dies, the information pattern in the body’s neural net that comprises the mind dissolves forever, radiating away from the body as simple heat.

There is no afterlife. Our lives are a blessed, extraordinary, one-way trip.

This view is in marked contrast to the Abrahamic religions’ dualistic idea of a “mind” or “soul” existing independently of the body. Religions such as Christianity and Islam believe that the body is only a vessel, vulgar and profane, while the soul is the important bit. This has caused suffering on mass scales throughout history, as people have been tortured, enslaved and slaughtered in order to “save their souls”. And it informs the hostility these religions evince towards sexuality and bodily pleasures (and, arguably, towards women).

Ours is a religion that embraces the experience of life as material, bodied creatures. We celebrate, rather than morally condemning (consenting) sexuality; we live in the aliveness of knowing that we are thinking animals, but we are still animals. We celebrate and seek wisdom, yes, and growth, and all the subtlety and grace that a human mind may aspire to, but we know these occur and reside in the oneness of our bodied selves.

Other Pagan paths seem confused on this score. On the one hand, they, too, will say they see that they see the self as an integrated whole, with “the divine” manifest in material reality (immanence).  Yet they will also say they believe in reincarnation or in some kind of afterlife, which necessarily requires that at some point, body and “soul” are separated so that one may “go on” while the other decays.

It’s not a conundrum I have ever heard a good rationale to explain. But…not my path, so not my problem, either.

I don’t write about this sort of “atheology” very often. To me, it’s much more important to develop the practices and implementation of the path than it is to spend a lot of time on its philosophical underpinnings. But Atheopaganism does have those underpinnings, and for those of us who are practicing it, it is useful to be able to articulate where we stand on Big Questions about the nature of the Universe and our place in it.